Tag Archives: book club

Book Review: The Essex Serpent – Sarah Perry

I have been looking forward to reading this book for a while. I’ve heard GREAT things about it. I was delighted to find out it’s the next book for a book club I’ve recently joined. As I started the book, I realised that I’ve read one of her books before… for another book club… and *whispers* I didn’t really like it. And that’s stating it very mildly.  Oh no I thought, no… don’t be the same. Don’t be the same. Don’t be the same. And happily, it isn’t.

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I enjoyed The Essex Serpent. It’s about friendship, love, surgery, odd characters, social housing, religion, superstition, small towns, cities, being female, domestic abuse, sea creatures, illness, and fossils, and everything in between. Mostly it’s a book that I struggled to place in time and this is part of its point. The main character is Cora Seabourne, a well off, recently widowed woman. She moves from London and get caught up in a sleepy Blackwater Estuary village and its panic over recent sightings of a monster in the sea, the so called Essex serpent. Cora’s link to the town is the local vicar, William Ransome. There’s a wide range of other characters, including Cora’s socially conscious companion Martha, Her husband’s surgeon, Luke Garrett. There’s Luke’s rich friend. There’s Cora, Will and Luke’s friends. There’s some strange children. There’s a poor Londoner and the man who is trying to kill him. I could go on… but the story successfully links them all and draws you in.

I started off finding it a bit strange that the main female characters are supposedly younger than me, but act like much older women. If Cora met her husband 17, I think somewhere she mentions having been with him for 15 years, and she has an 11 year old son, so she’s 32!?!? She acts like she’s 60. I couldn’t reconcile the characters behaviour with the age they supposedly are. She acts like a Victorian grandma. She acts… Victorian. Oh… is she Victorian?  I honestly got to 53% of the way through before I realised the book is set over 100 year ago! This is a triumph as far as I’m concerned. The characters could so easily just be eccentric modern people. Strange ones with no phones, who like the outdoors. There are department stores, cabs, trains, modern hospitals and surgery. The people like science, and geology, and engineering. It is all consistent with Victorian England, but not the one that comes to mind when I think about Victorian times. In the picture I have in my mind it is ‘a long way in the past’ and ‘very different to today’, but actually it isn’t that much different, with the obvious absence of most modern technology. Chuck away your iPhone and you could practically be back there!

I had a bit of an issue with some character names. The surgeon is described as short and has the nickname the Imp. So now he’s Tyrion Lannister in my mind, and Cora is from Downton Abby. I don’t think these are too far from the character descriptions, but it was a bit distracting.

The plot is rich, and the characters are convincing and well rounded – they all seem like actual people in my mind. I am not going to try and describe the plot beyond what I’ve already written. It has quite a large scope in themes, though the story is geographically small. I think you might get even more out of The Essex Serpent if you are familiar with it’s very real setting. I felt this when I read The Loney, as this is set near to where I live. I am familiar with London, but the Blackwater estuary, and Colchester, I am not familiar with.

Overall, the story is good and the characters great, though they really could do with having at bit more fun every now and then. The surprising fact that it is set in Victorian times while seeming modern, and the link this gives you with those usually far off seeming times, is brilliant.

 

Book Review: Lion – Saroo Brierley

Lion is Saroo Brierley’s moving life story. Until he was five years old he lived, with his family, in a western part of India. He then accidentally became trapped on a train and found himself in Calcutta, in the eastern part of India, 1500 miles away from home.

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With poor language skills and with the whole being five years old thing, he couldn’t find his own way home, and couldn’t get anyone to help him. He survived a truly frightening time on the streets.

Eventually, miraculously, he found himself being helped. His family couldn’t be found and so he was adopted by an Australian family.

Fast forward to him being around 30 years old and he realises Google Earth, and the little knowledge he has of where he grew up, can possibly allow him to locate his family.

It’s an amazing, terrible, horrifying story. I had to keep reminding myself that the early part of the story is only in the 1980s, and not a hundred years earlier than that. It’s written in quite a matter of fact style that I quite liked, but I could see how this could be a bit annoying to some readers. It’s quite obviously an extremely emotional story, but that is quite lacking in the storytelling.

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Saroo with his Australian mum and his birth mother.  Photo from www.thenational.ae

The book cover is Dev Patel playing Saroo in the film version. I haven’t seen it yet, but I can’t wait to. I think the story with the added heart string pulling emotional aspect will be stunning.  Also, the name of the book is a really sad, yet sweet, reveal moment in the book, so I won’t tell you now. 🙂

Book review: It Can’t Happen Here – Sinclair Lewis

I’m glad I’ve read this book, or am I just glad I’ve finished reading it? At almost 400 pages of dense text, it’s not helped by starting with 150 almost unreadable pages. It’s interesting though, and much better when the action really starts after Buzz Windrip is elected President.

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I read this for a book club I’ve just joined. I’m not sure I’d have got through it if I hadn’t had a target to work too. In fact, I ended up working out exactly how many pages per day I needed to read to get it done. That’s not a good sign!

When I read the description I assumed it must be a very recent book. I couldn’t believe it’s from 1935. Does Sinclair Lewis own a time machine?

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It’s eerie how lots of this story parallels with recent events in America. I like this description of the wannabee President while he’s a campaigning Senator:

The Senator was vulgar, almost illiterate, a public liar easily detected, and in his “ideas” almost idiotic…

The story in It Can’t Happen Here centres on Doremus Jessop, a small town newspaper editor and his friends, family and acquaintances. It follows their lives as the country descends into fascism. It’s grim, unsettling, and makes you aware that it really could happen anywhere.

I found it a difficult read. Even after the startlingly unreadable first third, it’s really hard work. I wouldn’t normally pick up such a political book, so I was starting outside of my normal reading habits anyway. I’m glad I’ve finished it. I mean, I’m glad I’ve read it! But I will not need to read about politics, for fun, for a long, long time.

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it can!

Book Review: Vinegar Girl – Anne Tyler

Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler is a retelling of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. It’s funny and an enjoyable read.

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Vinegar girl is part of the Hogarth Shakespeare Project. There are 6 books published so far; one being Margaret Atwood’s Hag Seed– I’ve heard a lot about this one because it was on the Bailey’s prize longlist. Before picking up Vinegar Girl (for a local book club I’m going to try out for the first time this month) I hadn’t heard of the project. I hadn’t heard of Anne Tyler either, which is probably pretty shameful. Some of the planned books for the project look really good too.

I should also admit that I don’t know much about most Shakespeare plays. I did Macbeth and Julius Caesar at high school, but haven’t formally studied English literature since then, and reading Shakespeare plays for fun has just never taken my fancy! Thus all my other Shakespeare knowledge comes from pop culture. Safe to say before starting Vinegar Girl, I had no idea what the plot of The Taming of the Shrew was. I actually thought there was an actual small rodenty animal in it and have only just found out the shrew is a woman. Charming. I also just found out 10 Things I Hate About You is also a retelling of the Taming of the Shrew. I had no idea. I am a Shakespeare dunce.

Vinegar girl tells the story of Katherine Battista, elder daughter of a dedicated, stereotypically useless at everyday life, scientist. She is 29 and has found herself running the household and being  mostly responsible for her 15 year old sister, Bunny. She also works full time as a teaching assistant in a primary school.  Kate is a great character. She is funny, not a girly girl, and quite acerbic. I know exactly where she’s coming from with the whole not getting your hair cut thing:

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Kate has basically been given up on by her family, friends and acquaintances in terms of getting settled down with a man. Then her Father’s brilliant, eastern European lab assistant, Pyotr, needs help to stay in the USA. Dr Battista wants Kate to marry him so he can get a green card and he can continue working on their autoimmune disease project. He is sure they are on the verge of a magnificent breakthough.

Did I mention Kate is funny?

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I loved the character of Pyotr. He is charmingly portrayed as a scientist, with the usual associated quirks, and also as a foreigner struggled with the nuances of language and feeling separate from the rest of society because he can’t make the language do what he wants it to.

I imagine this book wouldn’t appeal to someone who is already very familiar with The Taming of the Shrew. It’s a bit of an academic exercise to be given a  play to retell, rather than to be inspired to want to do a retelling of a story.  There are characters that, even I can tell, are put in to reference characters from the original play, and they don’t really bring anything or go any where. Actually, maybe these character make more sense if you know the original intimately. Maybe someone can tell me? 🙂 For me, I enjoyed the story and it also made me read a whole lot about the original play. It has acted like a Shakespeare gateway.

This book also looks beautiful. The cover is gorgeous. It’s so photogenic and, you can probably see from my Instagram, that the saturated, high contrast type of picture is my preferred style and this book lends itself so well to these type of pictures.

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Overall, a great, funny easy read. I will definitely be seeking out some more Anne Tyler books. Which should I try next?

and, What’s your favourite retelling of a Shakespeare play?

Book review: Me Before You – Jojo Moyes

This book is my book club secret santa and I’ve really been looking forward to reading it – sometimes I just want an easy read that is almost guaranteed to make me cry! In case you weren’t sure, the cover lets you know this is and INTERNATIONAL PHENOMENON, and also a major motion picture. I was given this book with the words: This will make you cry. Hooray!

*spoilers ahead*

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Overall, it’s a super easy read. No dictionary required. You get easily drawn into the story of the slightly useless, 26 year old Louisa Clark. She’s aimlessly going through life and without much consideration, beyond a quite desperate need for money to support her family, she ends up as companion/carer to 35 year old, quadriplegic Will Traynor.

It’s revealed he is planning on ending his life at Dignitas, but has agreed to give his family 6 months before he does this. She begins to implement a plan to change his mind, and obviously falls in love with him. As he falls for her too. But it isn’t enough for him. He feels he’s not enough for her. So he’s going to do it anyway.

All the hooks are there to get you invested and throw your emotions all over the place. I enjoyed reading it and couldn’t put it down for a few days until I was finished.

Many people have an issue with the fact that Will’s decision to end his life gives a very negative view on living with disability. I didn’t have too much of an issue with how this is presented in the book. I can accept it is presented as one person’s opinion and not a general comment on disability. I understand why others may find this extremely distasteful.

What I really had a problem with it that a past sexual assault is given as the reason she starts to dress alternatively. I get that the assault is a turning point for her and something she hasn’t dealt with yet, but citing her wish to dress modestly because she thinks she attracted to assault, and mixing this up with her starting to dress individually and colourfully is wrong to me. I suspect this pushed my buttons because I’m not a conventional dresser myself and it irked me that this defining, positive part of her is revealed to be the consequence of assault!

In fact, the entire sexual assault subplot is completely unnecessary in my opinion. When it was revealed, I might have even audibly exhaled. Not another book turning to a rape to explain a character’s life. Would it have been so bad for Lou to have decided to stay in her home town because she ummm… just wanted to?

The overall theme of Me Before You is about Lou having her horizons expanded. She starts off with no ambition or clue about what to do with her life and ends up excited about furthering her education and doing some interesting things with her life. She also ends up inheriting the means to do this. Convenient!

Having said all that, if you want an emotional roller coaster, good, easy read – then this is the book for you!

Book review: Me Talk Pretty One Day – David Sedaris

I first heard David Sedaris a few years ago, by accident, when one of his Radio 4 readings was on as I was decorating. It was so funny, I loved it and started listening to more as they were broadcast.

I went to see a show he did a couple of years ago, but I haven’t ever got round to reading any of his books. The show was great. My husband came along and I’m not sure he knew what to make of it! I think he thought it might be stand up comedy…

It was too good an opportunity when my turn to choose my book club’s book coincided with the start of 2017, and a Sedaris book is on my reading list challenge. Excellent! So Me Talk Pretty One Day it is.

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I really enjoyed this collection of stories. There are two parts to the book. The first covers his upbringing and time spent in Chicago and New York. The second part his move to France. The one about him learning to speak French can now be credited with containing the only sentence in a book that has made me cry with laughter. I’m not going to tell you what it was though. You need to read it and find your own.

I read this entire book with Sedaris’ voice in my head and I’m not sure if that is key to finding it so funny. I think when my book club meet I’ll find out (Really hope they like it).

Some of the best bits of these stories are the descriptions of people that you just know are things you might think, but wouldn’t dare say. I’m deliberately not going into any details about the stories because I don’t want to ruin them for anyone who might give the book a go. I am definitely going to read some more of his books that I have had lined up in my to read pile for a while. Reading something genuinely hilarious is sometimes just what you need (especially when real, life shitty things happen) and you can escape, and laugh, and get away from it all for a little while.

This is still my favourite David Sedaris related story.

 

 

My year in books: 2016

 

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7 books for book club. The Immortals, After Me Comes The Flood, The Tiger’s Wife, Geek Love, The City and the City, The Loney, and The Blue Flower. We take turns to choose the book and this gives us a good variety and makes me read things I wouldn’t ever have chosen myself. Geek Love will stay with me FOREVER (in a slightly sinister way!).

2 that were a slog to get through. Crime and Punishment and The Goldfinch. So looooooonnnnnnnggggggg…

Only 2 that I didn’t really like (but at least with one it was a classic I’m glad I’ve got through)

1 children’s book has snuck into the list. This should technically be a lot more because I read to my kids every night at bedtime. I should have some children’s books x50 or x100 for my daughter’s favourites! Topsy and Tim Go to School I must have read a hundred times in a row. Also, the first three Harry Potter books and much Enid Blyton with my son. Next year I imagine I’ll include more of these because I’m aiming for 52 books! It still feels like cheating on the book count though.

At least half of these books have made me cry real tears. This is a great because it means I’ve been emotionally moved. There’s nothing worse than reading a bland, boring book that can’t even get me tearful once.

2 autobiographies for times when I don’t want to have to think.

1 graphic novel and a complete classic. Watchmen was my holiday read. I hadn’t factored in that it’s actually quite a physically big book and was quite annoying to take around with me.

2 YA books. Loved both of them.

1 pre holiday read – Man On Fire – because some of it is set in Malta where I was holidaying.

5 books I gave 5 star ratings to: Geek Love, Am I Normal Yet?, The Secret History, The City and the City and All the Bright Places. Good hit rate out of 20 books. Really happy with this.

3 of these were books I read to fill in the gaps in my reading history: Crime and Punishment, Slaughterhouse Five, and Rabbit, Run.

1 was a book given to me by a friend with the words ‘You’ll really like this’ and I did! The Secret History. I’d love for this to happen more.

9 books by women. This is great but I’m ashamed by how I’ve done on minority authors this year. I’m normally much better and usually try to include books from many different perspectives and different countries too.

20 books this year. Here’s to an even better 2017.

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